You’re no doubt aware that Pope Benedict XVI has announced his upcoming resignation, becoming the first pontiff to step down in 598 years.
I’ve taken a special interest in Benedict, though I’m not Catholic, because a friend of mine was vacationing in Italy back in 2005 when the search for a new pontiff was dominating the news there. That, of course, was after the death of Pope John Paul II.
I’ve told you this story before, and I hope you don’t mind hearing it again as Pope Benedict prepares for retirement.
My friend and his wife, towards the end of their April trip, found themselves in the scenic village of Bellagio, where the Alps soar majestically out of Lake Como to kiss the sky. Late one afternoon, they were relaxing in a small bar and eatery known as Trattoria San Giacomo.
My friend’s name isn’t important; we’ll call him John.
He and his wife had made their way through Tuscany and then over to the Adriatic Sea, spending a couple days in Venice before heading for the Italian lake district just above Milan. They’re seasoned travelers; even so, they had been taken aback at the dramatic beauty of Bellagio, a toney little resort that’s frequented during the summer by Europe’s jet set.
On that afternoon, clouds draped the mountain peaks across the lake, white puffs of cotton hovering in the azure sky over the little town of Tremezzo that hugs the opposite shoreline. As they sat in Trattoria San Giacomo and gazed out over the lake, they noticed the establishment’s intricate wooden moldings and basked in the atmosphere of a bar that seemed as if it could have come from the perfect Italian movie set.
In Italy, the world center of Catholicism, the election of a new pope was big news, indeed. Though he couldn’t read the Italian newspapers, John could decipher enough from the headlines to determine that nothing was more important each day than the process of picking a new Holy Father.
Throughout their trip, which had begun a couple days after the funeral of John Paul II, the European version of CNN had been almost obsessed with the papal story, running virtual 24-hour coverage of the gathering of the College of Cardinals. The big story of the day -- every day -- was the pope.
And so John and his wife relaxed in this bar in the late afternoon, the only Americans among a roomful of chattering Italians.
Suddenly there was a commotion, and the kitchen doors swung open quickly. The proprietor burst through, and overwhelmed by excitement, made a pronouncement to the entire room. And though John and his wife couldn’t understand the words, they knew exactly what he was saying: “We have a new pope.”
At once the atmosphere inside Trattoria San Giacoma was transformed. To a person, the patrons stood and rushed forward to where the proprietor had thrown open the double doors leading into the kitchen so that everyone could view the small television, which was resting on a shelf next to a big commercial refrigerator.
John and his wife found themselves caught up in the moment. They, too, stood and gazed at the television, and suddenly on the screen there was Pope Benedict XVI, standing in that well-known window in Vatican City, waving down at the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square.
After a few moments of listening to Benedict’s first blessings as Catholicism’s new leader, the people in the bar drifted back to their seats. The atmosphere was electric yet respectful, the kind of ambience you might expect to find in, well, in a church.
Soon people became more animated. Cell phones came out and people made calls to let others know of the papal decision. Less than five minutes later, John and his wife heard the church bells of Bellagio begin to peal in celebration.
The dinner hour was growing near, and they paid their tab and prepared to head for the restaurant where they planned to eat. Yet they regretted leaving the little trattoria and abandoning the special moment they had observed.
Certainly John and his wife did not consider themselves a part of history. After all, they had played absolutely no role in the election of Pope Benedict XVI. They are not even Catholics, and it was only coincidental that their trip to Italy coincided with the papal election.
Even so, though they were hundreds of miles from the Vatican, they both felt as if they were witnessing history in the making, and I suppose they were right. After all, they were there, in Italy, when the most important church news of the last quarter-century was made, and they were sharing a moment that many Italians will remember forever.
They picked up their sweaters and walked out of Trattoria San Giacomo into the chilly mountain air of Italy, and they were both smiling as the church bells of Bellagio continued to ring, ring, ring.